DNA backlogs: Public Protector’s feedback late and disappointing – Action Society

It took the Office of the Public Protector (OPP) two years to reply to a complaint that Action Society lodged against the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, President Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African Police Service (SAPS), the State Information Technology Agency SOC Ltd (SITA) and the SAPS’ Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) regarding the DNA backlog-crisis. According to Action Society, besides being so late, the report’s content is disappointing and misses the mark entirely as no one person or organisation is held to account.

The Public Protector resolved to collaborate with the Office of the Public Service Commission (OPSC), which was already investigating the matter. The OPSC’s report found that lack of sufficient budget was a key contributor to the increase in FSL backlogs, and financial mismanagement – including under-budgeting, under-spending and neglecting supplier contracts – is rife.

The OPSC further found that the centralised procurement of goods and services in the SAPS seems to create inefficiencies in providing services for FSL functions. The investigation also showed that the facilities at the FSLs were largely inadequate to accommodate scientific forensic processes as the design and layout of the laboratories and lack of sufficient or appropriate storage of exhibits hamper the workflow at the FSLs.

Action Society already wrote back to the PP to request access to the OPSC’s full report, and will decide on the next steps after reviewing the report.

“Although the OPSC did inspections at various FSL facilities and mentioned their findings about challenges and made suggestions, all the information included in the OPP’s feedback was common knowledge to us already – in fact, it was included in the complaint we lodged,” says Ian Cameron, Director of Community Safety at Action Society. “We specifically requested investigations into individuals’ and institutions’ negligence in resolving the crisis. These include President Cyril Ramaphosa, Police Minister Bheki Cele, the DNA Oversight Board, the SAPS, and SITA. Through their inaction, or alternatively their unduly delayed and insufficient action, these parties have allowed this status quo to persist. The Public Protector simply included the OPSC’s feedback but added no accountability measures. Without true accountability, nothing will change.”

Action Society has been on the frontlines advocating for prioritising forensic work in the battle against crime. We drove a campaign to get the CO (or DNA-) Bill signed into power, making it mandatory for convicted offenders in schedule 8 offences to give their buccal samples. After nine years, it finally came into effect. Before the commencement of this Bill, repeat offenders could not be linked to previous crimes through DNA.

“DNA evidence is by far the most effective crime fighting tool, but despite the president proclaiming war against GBV on many occasions, the government and especially the SAPS are not taking any real action in sorting out the DNA backlog. Thousands of victims of rape and violent crime, as well as families of murder victims, are not getting their day in court. Action Society believes this has become a human rights violation which undermines South Africans’ constitutionally entrenched rights to equality, fair administrative action, as well as access to courts,” concluded Cameron.

Background on Action Society’s complaint at the OPP:
Despite all the work to ensure the formation of a DNA database against which new samples could be compared, all DNA testing at the FSL ground to a halt in 2020 because Bheki Cele failed to pay the agreed fees for the PCEM system in June 2020, causing the subsequent shut down of the system. This caused a backlog in forensic testing in over 125 000 cases, of which 92% were sexual assault kits. In November 2020, Cele admitted that the DNA backlog was a whopping 117 738 cases. By December, this figure had grown to 142 504. In March 2021, the FSL head, Major General Edward Ngokha, confirmed that the backlog stood at 172 787 and that nothing had been processed for in January or February. Action Society learned through a PAIA application that the backlog stood at 241 152 in April 2021. By July 2021, a backlog of more than 300 000 cases led to Action Society’s complaint with the PP in October 2021.

Is there justice in SA?

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